June 18, 2009

Trust: Is it declining?

When asked about whether we are a less trusting nation than we used to be, our response, typically is yes. After all, were not things always better in the 'old days'. Research (MORI) suggests otherwise (and for those interested in trust research, the MORI organisation offers a barometer of opinions via its regular studies of trust in the professions).

It appears that trust, in people like politicians and journalists, and in people in general is relatively stable over time (but then trust in politicians is low and remains low -  there isn't much room for it to fall further - and our trust in people in general (in the UK) hovers around the 50% mark).

When we are bombarded with bad news (politicians fiddling expenses, breaches of trust by businesses, failures in duty of care in social workers and hospitals, etc, etc.) it seems that we surmise that, on the whole, society is becoming less trustworthy. In reality, when making a judgement about whether things are getting better or worse, we are making assumptions about the past (of which we have but a sketchy recollection) biased by our perceptions of what is happening in the present. So the more bad news we hear the more likely we are to make an assumption that things must be getting worse, but it is just that, an assumption but one that then becomes a belief because of its constant presence.

But there is another question worth exploring. When dealing with subjects or people at arms length or being asked about professions in general, we might question whether what is being measured is trust, per se, or some measure of confidence in the professions ability to perform their function or simply their propensity to lie.

Trust, within the literature is (in short) a belief or the placing of faith in the reliability of a third party, particularly when there is an element of personal risk. Hence one might, legitimately, claim to trust ones babysitter (the downside risks do not bear thinking about), one might trust a friend with a secret and develop a level of confidence in that persons integrity and discretion, and one might trust one's own doctor based on a series of interactions. One might also trust an unknown doctor because when ill we have little choice until we have more information. But if we say we trust a profession, what are we actually saying. There is, at this level of interaction, little or no 'element of personal risk' (at least not in the short term) and hence the conceptualization of trust should differ.

This poses a question. Is the construct of trust as measured by MORI (trust in a corporate) the same construct of trust as that measured in the many research papers on trust (mostly trust in direct dyadic interactions - see trust_a_bibliography_may09.docx)?  To what extent are integrity, benevolence and credibility, Zand's (1972) three antecedents of interpersonal trust, transferrable to a conceptualisation of trust in a corporate? To what extent can we legitimately discuss the cognitive or affective form of trust in a corporate without reconceptualising the trust construct to remove the 'personal risk' factor? Or is the proximity of personal risk merely a moderator of the interaction.

If personal risk is removed, then it is no great surprise that there is little change in the perceptions of trust in corporates. What is really being measured may be an assessment of our belief in the likelihood that the average member of that profession would lie to use, a measure that might be more stable, but a measure that is not a  measure of trust.

Thoughts and comments welcome


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